Secondary school students should 'be encouraged' to wear masks in classrooms and schools be allowed to move to blended learning in areas with high Covid infection rates as part of urgent action to make them safe for pupils and staff, a group of scientists have said today.
The Independent Sage group has also called for Sats to be scrapped and exams to be replaced by teacher assessments next year.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has responded to the recommendations by calling on the government to give schools the freedom to move to remote learning in the final week of term.
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The Independent Sage recommendations for "urgent action" on schools after the latest figures show one in five secondary school students were off last week.
Its new report also highlights a Tes story about a complaint that official figures used to show that teachers are at no greater risk of Covid than other professions were misleading.
It comes as the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that only secondary school-aged children in England have seen a rise in Covid-19 infection rates.
Recent Department for Education (DfE) figures show that nearly three in four (73 per cent) secondary schools in England have had at least one student self-isolating at home last week owing to potential contact with coronavirus.
Group member Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews said: “In the summer, the government effectively abandoned schools, requiring them to be safe but without providing the support or the resources to make this possible.
“As a result, far too many of our children are left in crowded, badly ventilated classrooms; infections have increased 50-fold since September; one in five students are off school; and all this is now putting the whole community at risk.
“The government must acknowledge its error and change direction. We must act urgently to make schools safe. This crucial report provides a blueprint for exactly how that can be achieved.”
Independent Sage has recommended:
- “blended learning” for secondary schools in areas with high infection rates;
- secondary school children to be encouraged to wear face masks in classrooms;
- better classroom ventilation and warm clothing to be provided to children in need, and smaller classes in primary schools;
- SATs should be cancelled;
- secondary school exams replaced with assessment by teachers.
The report says that teachers have been given “misleading information” about the health risks and the risks of contact on school buses and in playgrounds has “not been adequately recognised”.
It also adds that standardised tests cannot “run fairly” when some schools have been affected worse than others, according to a report from a group of scientists – which says schools do not need the extra stress.
The panel of scientists, chaired by former chief scientific adviser Sir David King, is holding a presentation on Covid in schools today.
Responding to the new Independent Sage report, ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said: “We have repeatedly called on the government to allow schools to move to rota systems if this would help them to manage the significant disruption many are experiencing because of coronavirus.
“The government has refused to countenance this approach and has dogmatically insisted that schools must plough on to the end of term fully open, whatever the consequences.
“We now see that Independent Sage is proposing blended learning for secondary schools in areas with high levels of infection on scientific grounds in order to control infection rates.
“We share the government’s view that keeping schools open is a national priority but it should be prepared to show some flexibility in how this is achieved in light of the extreme circumstances.
“At the very least the government must give school leaders the flexibility to move to remote learning during the final week of term either fully or partially based on their judgement of the situation.
“Many schools may be in the invidious position of having to tell large numbers of pupils and staff to self-isolate over Christmas in line with Covid protocols.
“They need to be able to make decisions over how best to deliver learning during that week in order to minimise that risk and in the best interests of their school community.”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “This is a welcome intervention by Independent Sage, which once again exposes the enormous blind spot that government has towards schools. Today’s consultation document raises many issues which must now be seriously considered. It is quite clear that schools and colleges need much stronger safety measures.
“There are ways in which schools can be made safer. We gave the government a roadmap in June, including advice on expanding school sites to get class sizes down, encouraging teachers back from retirement, and a proper, effective test, track and trace system.
“They have delivered on none of this, and have instead given schools late guidance, a helpline that provides inconsistent messages, and the staggering suggestion just this week that NEU members should 'hold their nerve' as staff and pupil attendance deteriorates and schools struggle to remain operational. Schools have been abandoned by this government.”
However, a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) said this morning that “there is no strong evidence whatsoever of large-scale spread in schools”.
Epidemiologist Dr Michael Tildesley noted that tier 3 regions had seen an increase in cases in schools but, as the measures in those areas kicked in, “those had started to come down”.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “It is very, very clear that, yes, there are cases in schools and there are children isolating, but there is no strong evidence whatsoever of large-scale spread in schools.
He added: “We are not seeing cases in schools are leading to a spillover to cases in the community.
“In fact, there is slightly weak evidence admittedly that it is actually the other way around, where we are seeing more cases in the community leading to cases in schools.
“To me, there really isn’t strong evidence that schools staying open represent a strong risk to society in terms of a rise in infections. It is more important, in my opinion, for children’s educational needs.”
He noted that children have already been out of school for a long period and we “don’t want to exacerbate that” by closing schools now when the evidence in terms of risk is very weak.